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Best Hearing Protection For Shooters [2022]

HEARING PROTECTION: USE IT OR LOSE IT

Hearing protection is a fundamental must when it comes to shooting sports. Most ranges won’t even let you stay on the grounds if you don’t have ear pro. But mostly, it’s just the smart thing to do for your health.

I’ll break down what all of the technical wording means and give you a shopping list of what to look for!

HOW LOUD IS TOO LOUD?

Without getting too far into the weeds of science and biology – loud sounds are bad for you. Very loud sounds are very bad for you. Gunshots are very loud. Hearing protection keeps you safe.

DECIBELS (dB)

Let's lay some groundwork so this makes more sense. Decibels (dB) are the unit of measurement we use for sound. Normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawn mower is about 100 dB, and gunshots are in the neighborhood of 150 dB to 170 dB. 

Something tricky about decibels is that they aren’t measured simple like. Instead, they are measured logarithmically – 10 dB is 10 times louder than 0 dB, but 20 dB is 100 times louder than 0 dB. 100 dB is 1,000,000,000 (one billion) times louder than 10 dB.

Logarithmic curve expresses the relationship between sound intensify and the reaction of the human ear. Popular Mechanics, 1958

This means 170 dB is way, way, WAY louder than a person talking at 60 dB. It also means even a little reduction in dB goes a long way.

Going from 160 dB to 135 dB is a massive step down in loudness.

HARMFUL NOISE LEVELS

Ears are a sensitive thing and are pretty easy to damage. If you’ve ever been to a rock concert or even spent all day mowing the lawn without hearing protection, odds are you’ve damaged your hearing at least a little.

The really bad part is hearing damage is cumulative and never heals. What damage you’ve done is done for life. This is why it’s really important to protect your hearing.

Sustained loud noise is the most harmful to your hearing; for example, the CDC says sound over 85 dB (about the average gas lawn mower) can damage your hearing after about 2 hours of exposure.

The louder the sound, the less time you have before hearing damage.

However, gunshots are not sustained. They are very short bursts of sound.

According to OSHA, exposure to impulse sounds (like gunshots) under 140 dB will not harm your hearing. Thus, the general goal of hearing protection for shooting is to get gunshots under the 140 dB limit.

Lower is better, but 140 dB is the max.

HOW MUCH NOISE REDUCTION DO YOU NEED?

All hearing protection will come with a Noise Reduction Rating or NRR. This is a critical bit of info you should pay attention to before buying.

Gunshots rarely exceed 170 dB (but it can happen with large magnum rifle calibers or if you’re indoors). Most calibers/guns are around 160-165 dB. A .308 Win rifle is about 167 dB, 5.56 NATO AR-15 is about 165 dB, 9mm pistol is about 162 dB.

Awesome graphic from Silencer Central

In other words, you should aim for 20-25 NRR. More is better, but 20 is about the minimum.

But… there is a complication. OSHA and NIOSH have two different standards for calculating NRR, and it’s basically impossible to judge the method used for a given product.

The best way to really nail down how effective ear pro is for shooting is to look at the testing data itself, where the frequencies tested are listed alongside the reduction. 

Very few manufacturers release this level of data, so you’re stuck going off of the NRR.

The good news is gunshots are generally in the 1,000-8,000 hertz range, with the peak in the 1,000-2,000 Hz range.

Not the easiest to understand chart, but note the thick black line is representative of 1,000 Hz across all points

Hearing protection, regardless of style, is more effective in these ranges than in lower frequencies.

But, because NRR represents how much hearing protection works over all frequencies, the level of protection given to shooters is generally higher than the listed NRR.

This isn’t a perfect rule; a lot of this depends on what the manufacturer decides to report and how exactly its testing is done. 

The nitty-gritty of these details involves a ton of math, science, laws, and regulations of not only the USA but the EU also, and dozens of studies – but the bottom line is hearing protection, for shooters, generally works better than the box might say it does.

But… the complication won’t end there. While most gunfire is in the 1 kHz-8 kHz range, a notable exception to this would be magnum caliber rifles and especially magnum caliber rifles with muzzle brakes. These are usually down in the 500ish kHz range, where ear pro is less effective.

So if you’re going to spend all day yeeting monster cartridges, you should probably double-up on ear pro even if you’re outside.

TYPES OF HEARING PROTECTION

PASSIVE

This is the most basic form of hearing protection and by far the cheapest. It just muffles the sound. That’s it. No electronics, no batteries, it just does its job and doesn’t need anything from you.

Foam plugs, reusable plastic plugs, and ear muffs are all forms of passive hearing protection.

ACTIVE

While a little more expensive, most people prefer active hearing protection because it not only blocks sounds that are too loud (like gunshots), but the system also has microphones and speakers to amplify sounds that are not harmful to your hearing like people talking.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Hearing Protection

Active hearing protection makes it a lot easier to hold a conversation at the range, hear safety commands, listen to your class’s instructors, etc.

Don’t forget to keep some spare batteries in your range bag!

IN-EAR

Just like it sounds like, hearing protection that goes inside of your ear. These can really cover all of the flavors of ear pro, depending on the style you want.

3M Combat Arms Single-Ended Earplugs

Simple foam plugs are the most common type, but passive reusable designs are pretty nice also. If you want to get fancy, there are active earbuds that are great but pricey.

OVER-EAR

Again, just what it sounds like. Muffs that go over your ears to protect your hearing. They come in active and passive flavors and range from very cheap to really expensive. 

Autumn getting help from dad with her muffs.

What you will find more comfortable is really up to you. In-ear hearing protection can make your ears hurt from the pressure after too long, but over-ear can leave your ears feeling swampy and icky if it’s hot and humid.

I strongly recommend both since they fill different niches.

DOUBLE-UP

More common with people who shoot either big magnums or shoot at indoor ranges, it’s normally pretty easy to wear both in-ear and over-ear hearing protection at the same time. A set of foamies in your ear and ear muffs over them provide extra protection without being too uncomfortable.

Keep in mind noise reduction doesn’t add together – in-ear hearing protection rated for 25dB reduction combined with over-ear hearing protection rated for 30dB does not equal 50dB reduction.

Decibels are measured logarithmically, so A plus B doesn’t equal C. Two are way better than one, but know that there are diminishing returns.

BEST SHOOTING EAR PROTECTION

Ear Buddy Foam Earplugs

The most basic form of hearing protection is also one of the most effective when used correctly. A thing about foam earplugs is you need to put them in right, or they’re almost useless. Pinch, roll, insert. Let them expand, and you’re good to go.

foam ear pro bad vs good

Confused? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has your back on YouTube.

Ear Buddy is the brand I have listed here, but honestly, any foam earplug is more or less the same. I’ve used the same jar of Walgreen’s brand earplugs when I double-up for like 4 years.

Most foam earplugs will have an NRR of about 30; Ear Buddy is 32 dB making it a great choice when you’re going low-tech.

While technically you can use these multiple times, they’ll get dirty and nasty after the first use. Use ‘em and throw ‘em away, they’re 40 cents a pair, and you’re worth it.

SureFire EP3 Sonic Defenders

If you’re looking for passive in-ear protection you can reuse, I’d recommend the SureFire EP3. I’ve kept the same set in my range bag as my emergency ear-pro for about 6 years now, and they’re still going strong.

SureFire EP3 Sonic Defenders

NRR of 24 isn’t the best in-ear rating, but it’s not bad either. Great for keeping a small, cheap set for when you need them or for when you want to double up.

They even come with a little case to keep them in!

One size does not fit all, but they come with multiple insets as earphones do, so you can generally size them to your needs.

Peltor Sport Shotgunner II

One downside to ear muffs is many designs are super thick. Thick ear protection gets in the way when shooting a rifle and can be super annoying.

The Peltor Sport Shotgunner II is one of the few super slim designs of passive ear muffs. 

Peltor Sport Shotgunner II
Peltor Sport Shotgunner II

NRR of 24 dB for the super skinny set; these also come in 27 dB and 30 dB flavors if you’re willing to add some thickness for more protection.

Personally, I recommend the 24 dB model since it’s the easiest to wear.

Dr. Meter Kid’s Noise Reduction Earmuffs

Got kids? Or maybe just a small head? Dr. Meter is here for you with some sturdy earmuffs that are actually designed and sized for small heads.

Dr. Meter Kid’s Noise Reduction Earmuffs
Dr. Meter Kid’s Noise Reduction Earmuffs

Children’s hearing is especially vulnerable to noise damage, so protecting them is extra essential. Their little heads can make it hard for normal over-ear pro to fit, and a lot of kids find in-ear protection to be really uncomfortable to wear.

Slap these 27 dB ear muffs on their wee heads and they're set for the range.

These also work great for adults that happen to have uncommonly small heads. If over-ear pro has ever slipped off your head, give these a shot.

Howard Leight Impact Sport

Go to just about any gun range these days, and at least a third of the people there will be rocking Howard Leight Impact Sport electronic ear muffs. They’re good, and they’re not a bad price at all.

Howard Leight Impact Sport
Howard Leight Impact Sport

These electronic ear muffs have a mic to pick up sound and speakers to amplify it so you can hear ambient sounds and voices. However, any sound over 82 dB automatically gets filtered out and not amplified. 

With an NRR of 22 these will keep you safe and let you hear what people are saying.

Walker's Razor Slim

For the best value in hearing protection, I don’t think anyone can come close to beating the Walker Razor Slims. I’ve seen these as low as $25, but they’re normally around $35-40.

23 dB NRR, great sound amplification, not too bad to wear for hours at a time, and surprisingly durable for the price. 

Walker's Razor Slim
Walker's Razor Slim

The controls are simple, and the design is basic, but these do everything you need for a basic set of active ear muffs and nothing you don’t need.

Walker's Razor Quad Electronic Muffs

All of the goodness of the Razor Slim, but with some added features and a slightly higher price. While the MSRP is $120, I’ve seldom seen them over $75 and can be had pretty often for about $60.

This is the ear pro I’ve used for about four years now – and that’s taking them to monthly competitions, weekly training sessions, and major industry events like SHOT Show. Mine is still running as strong as they were on day one, and I’m super pleased with them.

Walker's Razor Quad Electronic Muffs

Two features I like over the more basic Razor Slims, the Quad muffs have four mics to pick up sound around you. These feel more natural and are easier to hear people no matter where they are.

Second, Bluetooth. Syncing my hearing protection to my phone and listening to some music while I set up, tear down, or even while I get some training done is an excellent way of spending an afternoon on the range.

NRR is 23 dB.

Walker's Silencer Wireless

Personally, I’m not crazy about in-ear active hearing protection. Primarily because of the cost. At $250 these are not cheap, but are pretty cool at least.

24 dB NRR these are the second generation of in-ear active hearing protection from Walker, and they work really well.

Walker's Silencer Wireless
Walker's Silencer Wireless

Picking up sounds and voices around you is easy and clear, while the earbuds are surprisingly comfortable.

Rechargeable via the case they come with helps make this a more portable unit. You recharge the case via micro USB.

Four modes are available to choose from, Universal, High Frequency, Power Boost, and Clear Voice. Basically, these preset for how much and what kind of sound gets boosted or filtered out.

Thankfully, all of these are controllable on an app you can put on your smartphone.

They also come with built-in Bluetooth, so that’s pretty nice too.

MSA Sordin Supreme Pro X

The king daddy of ear pro, if you’re rich or cool – you probably own MSA Sordins. And for good reason, these things are amazing. 

While not cheap at around $250+, MSA Sordins are undoubtedly some of the best ear pro ever made and are the #1 choice for high-speed bearded dudes that shoot bad guys for a living. Why?

MSA Sordin Supreme Pro X
MSA Sordin Supreme Pro X

Partly I’m sure Uncle Sam picks up the tab, but it’s also because Sordins are just that good. They’re built like a tank but are super comfy to wear for long periods, 600 hours of life from just 2 AAA batteries, waterproof, and feature an AUX input for radios and mics.

Plus, they actually pass a ton of MIL-Spec testing requirements – not easy.

But there is one weird thing; they only have an NRR of 18. Honestly, I’m not really sure why it lists its NRR so low – maybe it’s a legal thing I don’t understand, but thankfully because these are so well tested by governments and militaries around the world, finding actual test data isn’t hard.

For gunshot sound ranges, MSA Sordins have a dB reduction of 25 at 1 kHz and almost 30 at 2 kHz. Even down at 500 kHz, they still have a dB reduction of 23.

While the reported NRR is only 18, the protection they provide shooters is, in fact, excellent.

SINGLE BEST HEARING PROTECTION UPGRADE

If you try $20 over-ear hearing protection and then try a $300 set, the $300 set feels worlds more comfortable. While you’re getting more for your money in other areas, most of why those more expensive muffs feel better is simply because they use a high-quality gel ear pad to seal around your ears.

hearing protection gel cups
hearing protection gel cups

Gel pads are softer, fit better, seal better for more noise reduction, and are just way more comfortable to wear. They’re also almost exclusively found only on higher-end ear pro.

The good news is you can just buy some gel pads and add them to your less-expensive hearing protection.

Combo a relatively average set of muffs like the Razor Slim for around $40 with a set of gel pads for about $20, and for just $60, you have hearing protection that is 99 percent as comfortable as $300 MSA Sordins.

This works with basically any ear muff hearing protection. Just be sure to pick up gel pads that fit your choice of muffs.

For an even better upgrade, take a look at the Noisefighter Sightline gel pads. These are more expensive than regular gel pads, but feature a special cut-out for glasses to rest in. Prescription glasses or eye protection, the extra cut make it much more comfortable to wear for long periods.

noisefighters sightlines
Noisefighters Sightlines

Personally, I refuse to own ear pro that don’t have gel cups anymore.

LOOSE ROUNDS

Hearing protection is a must, always and no matter what. If you’ve ever come across a shooter that thinks they don’t need hearing protection, it’s probably because their hearing is so bad they don’t know what they are missing.

My overall recommendation is the Walker's Razor Quad Electronic Muffs, but if you want to save some money the Razor Slim is a great runner-up.

And you should always have some foam earplugs in your range bag. Doubling up, forgetting your main ear pro, or you bringing a friend – there are lots of times when those foamies will come in handy.

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